By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE
Dave King, author of the debut novel, The Ha Ha, graciously agreed to grant us an interview. You can hear King speak in person on Friday, December 5th, at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.
King holds a BFA in painting and film from Cooper Union and an MFA in writing from Columbia University; he taught at Baruch College and the School of Visual Arts in New York before moving to New York University’s Gallatin School of Interdisciplinary Studies. His bestselling debut novel, The Ha Ha was a finalist for Book of the Month Club’s best Literary Fiction Award and the Quill Foundation’s award for Best Debut Fiction and was named one of the best books of 2005 by the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Amazon.com.
We’re immensely grateful to Dave King for his time and thoughtful responses to our interview. We present Part I here, and will return with Part II and a report of King’s speaking event in our December 7th post.
SMP: Your title and cover really capture one’s attention. Why did you choose this title?
DK: I first heard of this arcane landscaping feature as an undergraduate painting student at Cooper Union, where I took an elective on the history of architecture. I was at that time making paintings that involved visual puns, and I was struck by both the cleverness and the practicality of the concept, for a ha-ha creates a barrier without any visible wall. Essentially, it’s an optical illusion, an artificial cut in the landscape which, viewed from certain angles, becomes invisible, so that the land appears to roll on without interruption.
I suppose the idea stuck in my mind, because the ha-ha’s appearance twenty years later in my manuscript was entirely unplanned; it came to me one day as I was writing about Howard at work, and gradually, as the book developed, it became a leitmotif, this unstable private space through which he recaptures his last moments before becoming disabled.
As to why I chose it for the title: in my view, this is not a book thick with symbols, but it does include one major symbol, which is the ha-ha itself. I tend to view symbols as supporting a book’s themes, rather than, say, delineating a specific code which the reader must break into specifics, so the book can certainly be read without reference to the symbolism. But for readers who are interested in symbols, the title’s a little indicator that says, “Look here.” For example, as a landscape element, a ha-ha simply isn’t comprehensible from certain angles. Its complexity is only apparent once you get up close (just like Howard). As a break in the terrain it offers an invitation to think about surface and interiority and the possibility that what you see is less than what you get. These issues are all important to understanding Howard, and as a cut in the landscape, a ha-ha is also a kind of wound.
There’s one more reason I like the title. For many readers this is not a known term, so the way they’ll access the title first is as an element of pure sound, perhaps a parallel to Howard’s own occasional vocalizations. In any case, I liked the idea of starting with something mysterious which then is revealed.
I didn’t have anything to do with any of the book’s covers, though it’s always fun to see how the designers and marketing teams interpret a book.
SMP: Where did you get the idea for this novel and your protagonist Howard Kapostash’s inability to speak for thirty years?
DK: Well, the short answer is that I had a brother who was profoundly autistic, so I have a basic interest in disability and how it functions within more normally abled society. That said, I need to head off any assumption that my book is a portrait or memorial to my late brother Hank. (Only my dad was permitted to make that claim, because it gave him comfort.) As most people understand, any acquired injury like Howard’s presents very different emotional and psychological terrain from those conditions one is born with, including autism. Much of Howard’s primary anguish stems from his sense of loss—something my brother, to the best of my knowledge, did not feel.
Anyway, perhaps for this reason many of my early stories included variously disabled characters, usually in secondary roles. This was something I didn’t realize myself until a grad school classmate pointed it out, but when she did, it interested me, partly because it was such an unconscious gesture. Then it was quite a natural thing to move the disabled secondary character into the protagonist’s role and see how that felt. The Ha-Ha began as a story about a mute man taking his girlfriend’s child to a boxing match.
SMP: In reading “The Ha Ha,” several themes resonated for me; the plight of the communicatively impaired, generalized apathy toward wounded warriors, and drug addiction’s impact on family stability and children. Was your intention to raise awareness of these issues?
DK: I don’t think of this as a book with an agenda—at least, not in that sense. I’m really not out to preach, and I emphatically do not believe art needs a message to be justified. I very much believe in art for art’s sake and the right of the artist to engage whatever he or she wants to engage. Nevertheless, there were a couple of things I wanted to explore.
One: the loss of the American dream as it applied to one guy who grew up with middle-class expectations of happiness and success. As someone who missed Vietnam only through the lucky shut-down of the draft, this is an issue that interests me: not exactly the fate I might have had if I’d been less fortunate, but something like that.
Secondly, I wanted to look at the kinds of families we choose to build, situationally and out of love, and how they differ from the families we’re born into.
I guess the point I’m making is that in both cases these were things I wanted to explore for myself through the process of writing the book, rather than bulletins aimed at reforming the world.
SMP: Howard carried a card stating that he was mute, but of normal intelligence. Yet strangers addressed him in a demeaning manner, as if he were retarded or deaf. Is this authentic dialog based on experiences or observations in your own life?
DK: The novel isn’t based on anyone, and Howard is an invented character. He’s also not really a poster-boy for the noble victim, since he’s fairly touchy and closed down, with a pretty big chip on his shoulder. I wanted him to be human and have a complete and complicated personality as well as normal intelligence (and sexuality), and I believed he ought to be able to rage against his fate. Even behave badly, as he does at several points in the book. Most of the incidents in the novel were invented, but you don’t have to dig very deeply into the experiences of those who are differently abled to learn that among the biggest beefs are being misunderstood and being talked down to. Of course, part of my method in writing the book was to put myself in Howard’s shoes and imagine the ways I might handle such humiliating situations—both well and poorly.
SMP: As a speech-language pathologist, I’m interested in knowing how you researched Howard’s speech therapy issues. (At times, I wished I could jump into your text and work with Howard’s speech.)
DK: I started by researching brain injury, and I found that when considering the brain there are very few standard formulas. Each individual’s injury is different from the next, which gave me a lot of leeway with regard to Howard’s symptoms and issues (aphasia, alexia and so on). This also gave me a plot point which is central to the conflict: long before the events described in the book, Howard has abandoned the therapy industry in frustration over his inability to build on even small gains and his general failure to heal his language skills as he has his more physical injuries. He’s essentially said, “The hell with it,” and devoted himself to being a kind of badass, doing drugs and making a nuisance of himself, though again, this period is in the past, and by he time The Ha-Ha begins he’s pretty much cleaned up. (It may also be significant to note that his therapy period would have been in the late 1970’s, following his return from Vietnam. This was before the development of certain technologies in use today.)
So I did look at speech therapy of that era, but not as much as I looked at traumatic brain injury and recovery and their relation to language pathology. But by far the most unexpected research that I did had to do with theories of consciousness, since I was interested in whether it was even valid to compose a first-person narration by someone who could not technically compose such a narration himself.
In the end, I solved this problem by realizing that even if Howard doesn’t have sentences per se, he has ideas and emotions and thoughts and a full inner life, as we all do. So the novel is a record of that inner life, rather than a point-for-point readout of his mind at work. Of course, this is true of any first-person narrative: we don’t think in sentences—at least I don’t—so in that sense a sentence is simply the convention we use to describe the far more rich and complicated experience we call consciousness.
Colleagues take note; for our benefit, Dave added:
(By the way, as a speech pathologist, you might like to know that one of the happiest surprises of publishing this book has been hearing from people in your line of work. In fact, there’s an aphasia support group in North Carolina that I skype with once or twice a year, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.)
THANK YOU, DAVE KING!
Please come back next week for Part II, and read King’s discussion of his writing routines, current projects, and advice to writers like myself.
We hope you join us for King’s reading at The College of Saint Rose, Neil Hellman Library, 392 Western Ave., Albany, at 7:30 PM.
For more information:
Dave King’s official website: http://davekingwriter.com/
Frequency North: The Visiting Writers Reading Series at The College of Saint Rose, http://frequencynorth.strose.edu/